China Reveals Its Lunar Lander Design

Visualization of the ILRS, from the CNSA Guide to Partnership (June 2021). Credit: CNSA

Last May, as part of the nation’s growing presence in space, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) announced that it had established a Human Lunar Space Program that would send crewed missions to the Moon and culminate in the creation of a lunar base. This came shortly after China and Russia announced that they would be collaborating on future lunar missions, which included the creation of a base around the southern polar region. In June 2022, they announced that this base would be named the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) and released a guide explaining how international partners could join.

On Thursday, August 31st, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) released artists’ renderings of their next-generation spacecraft and lunar lander. The spacecraft will consist of two sections, a reentry capsule, and a service section, while the lunar lander will include a landing section and a propulsion section. According to a statement released by the Agency, these vehicles will deliver crews to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and allow China to send crewed missions to the lunar surface. The release of these images confirms what has been suspected for some time: that China fully intends to land taikonauts on the Moon before 2030.

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China’s Chang’e-7 Will Deploy a Hopper that Jumps into a Crater in Search of Water Ice

Artist rendition of potential future facilities on the lunar surface. (Credit: CFP)

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese National Space Administration recently published a study in the journal Space: Science & Technology outlining how the upcoming Chang’e-7 mission, due to launch in 2026, will use a combination of orbital observations and in-situ analyses to help identify the location, amount, and dispersion of water-ice in the permanently-shadowed regions (PSRs) of the Moon, specifically at the lunar south pole.

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China Will Use Two Rockets to Put Humans on the Moon

Schematic diagram of China's proposed Lunar Lander. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

As of 2019, China began conducting preliminary studies for a crewed lunar mission that would take place by the 2030s. Two years later, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and Roscosmos announced a partnership to create an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The proposed timeline for development came down to three phases: Reconnaissance (2021-25), Construction (2025-35), and Utilization (2035-onward). Earlier this year, China announced that its space agency would send the first crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2030.

On July 12th, during the 9th China (International) Commercial Aerospace Forum in Wuhan, China, Chinese officials offered additional information about its crewed lunar exploration program. This included Deputy chief engineer Zhang Hailian of the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) office announcing the preliminary plan for China’s first crewed lunar mission. As Zhang illustrated with a series of animations, the mission will consist of two carrier rockets launching all the necessary elements to the Moon, which will then rendezvous in orbit and land on the surface to conduct science operations.

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Three New Astronauts Arrive at the Chinese Space Station, Including the Country's First Civilian

Artist's rendering of the completed Tiangong space station. Credit: Shujianyang/Wikimedia

China continues to establish new milestones in space. In recent years, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) has begun assembling the Long March-9 (CZ-9), the country’s first reusable super-heavy launch vehicle; the Tianwen-1 mission became the first Chinese orbiter, lander, and rover combination to reach Mars, and their super-secret spaceplane completed its second flight (after spending 276 days in space). China has also made significant progress in terms of human spaceflight, especially where the Tiangong space station is concerned.

Earlier this week (Tues. May 30th), the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) took another major step when it launched the country’s sixteenth mission (Shenzou-16) to Tiangong atop a Long March-2F (CZ-2F) rocket. This mission delivered three taikonauts to the space station and performed the most complicated docking maneuver ever attempted. The mission highlights included successfully testing the Shenzou’s upgraded instruments and systems, which allowed the spacecraft to autonomously rendezvous with the station under less-than-ideal conditions.

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Glass Fibers in Lunar Regolith Could Help Build Structures on the Moon

Electron microscope images of various glass particles identified from China's Chang'e-5 lunar samples. Credit: Laiquan Shen, R.Z. et al. (2023)

Through the Artemis Program, NASA plans to send the first astronauts to the Moon in over fifty years. Before the decade is over, this program aims to establish the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” The European Space Agency (ESA) also has big plans, which include the creation of a Moon Village that will serve as a spiritual successor to the International Space Station (ISS). China and Roscosmos also came together in June 2021 to announce that they would build the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) around the lunar south pole.

In all cases, space agencies plan to harvest local resources to meet their construction and long-term needs – a process known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Based on samples returned by the fifth mission of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (Chang’e-5), a team of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) identified indigenous glass fibers for the first time. According to a paper they authored, these fibers were formed by past impacts in the region and could be an ideal building material for future lunar bases.

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China is Planning to Land Humans on the Moon by 2030 as Part of its Ambitious Lunar Agenda

Image from a video animation showing the proposed Chinese lunar research station. Credit: China Media Group.

Weiren Wu, the Chief Designer of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), recently announced an ambitious plan to put Chinese footprints on the lunar surface by 2030. This announcement came just prior to this year’s Space Day of China, an annual event celebrated on April 24th meant to showcase the space industry achievements of the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

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What’s Next for China’s Lunar Exploration Plans?

China is starting to become a force in space exploration. Its main focal point of lunar exploration has started bearing fruit, with several successes, including a sample return mission and the first-ever craft to land on the far side. So what’s next for the Lunar Exploration Program? Establishing a research base may be on the cards, but the country doesn’t just plan to stop at the Moon – they are looking far beyond.

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Chinese Spacecraft Dock in Lunar Orbit for Transfer of Moon Samples – Next Stop, Earth!

Chang'e-5's orbiter approaches the lunar ascent vehicle for docking. (CLEP / CNSA Photo)

Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.

The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time December 6th (2142 UTC December 5th), the China National Space Administration reported.

Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.

If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around December 16th, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.

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China’s Chang’e-5 Probe Blasts Off From the Moon, Bringing Back a Full Load of Samples

A camera on China's Chang'e-5 spacecraft captures the moment of ignition for the ascent module, taking off from the lunar surface. (CNSA / CLEP / Zhang Gaoxiang)

For the first time in more than 40 years, a robotic spacecraft has blasted off from the Moon – and for the first time ever, it’s a Chinese spacecraft, carrying precious lunar samples back to Earth.

The ascent vehicle for the Chang’e-5 mission fired its engine and rose a region called Oceanus Procellarum at 1510 UTC (11:10 p.m. Beijing time) on December 3rd, the China National Space Administration’s China Lunar Exploration Project reported.

Imagery sent back from the Moon provided a view of the blastoff from ground zero. It was the first successful lunar launch since the Soviet Luna 24 probe took off during a sample return mission in 1976.

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Take a Look at What China’s Chang’e-5 Probe Is Seeing (and Doing) on the Moon

A panoramic view from China's Chang'e-5 probe shows the lunar terrain in front of the lander, including one of the landing legs in the foreground. (CNSA / CLEP Photo)

China’s Chang’e-5 robotic moon lander is due to spend only two days collecting samples of lunar rock and soil before it sends its shipment on its way back to Earth, but it’s making the most of the time.

Just hours after landing on December 1st, the probe started using its robotic scoop and drill to dig up material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.

It’s also been sending back pictures and video, including this stunning view of the final minutes before touchdown. Watch how the camera tips straight down to focus on the target spot for the lander:

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